Converting Power Plant Fuel Sources: what hazards will arise?

biomass fire protection

Contributor:  Daryl Bessa, President of F.E. Moran Special Hazard Systems
Writer:  Sarah Block, Marketing Director of The Moran Group

Followers of the power industry are well aware of the EPA regulations pushing coal power into the history books. Because of this, many plants are converting fuel sources. There are several options for fueling plants: solar, biofuel, combined-cycle - but the fuel of the moment is natural gas. With its current minimal cost and clean burning, it is a fuel that government regulators and plant managers can agree on. However, the process of converting fuels can be hazardous. There are numerous fire protection considerations that need to be made before, during, and after the conversion.

The Process of Converting Fuels

When a plant converts from one fuel source to another - for the purpose of this article, we will use the example of coal to natural gas, as this is the most common conversion -, the equipment needs to be changed and the boiler has to be converted from coal burning to gas burning. Conveyors and silos are no longer needed, but they may still be on the premises. If so, they may still contain residual coal dust that can cause spontaneous combustion. If a silo remains on the property for storage or another use, it needs to be protected with fire sprinklers. A fire or explosion in these shuttered areas could easily damage other working parts of the plant.

New piping, additional compressors, and valves will be added to convert to natural gas; the new equipment needs to be protected from fire during and after construction. A natural gas pipeline purge will take place during the conversion, and this could cause a massive fire or explosion. Kleen Energy is a prime example of what can happen when a mistake takes place during a pipeline purge. On February 7, 2010 in Middletown, CT an explosion occurred, spurred by the purging of a natural gas pipeline. Six people were killed and over fifty people were injured. A tragic event such as this can take place during construction with any number of workers on site, which is why completing the fire protection first is essential to workplace safety.

Protecting Plant Personnel

Workplace safety is a hot button topic. Safety issues and the lack of protecting employees has been a trending story in the news. How do we protect contractors during a fuel conversion from fire? Contractors must be aware of fire hazards and pre-plan to mitigate them. For example, in the case of Kleen Energy, employees were unaware a gas pipeline purge would be taking place that fateful day. That didn't allow employees to create a Job Safety Analysis (JSA) to determine possible safety risks and ways to avoid them.

Contractors should also be aware of fire protocol. If a fire takes place, it is necessary that all personnel on the site knows how they should react: who should the contractors notify? Where should they go as a muster area? How do you react if a co-worker is injured by the fire? All personnel should be aware of a fire plan.


Lastly, fire protection should be installed as soon as possible. Fires take place more often during construction or maintenance than when the plant is operating, so employees and property must be protected at all times. There will be new fire hazards associated with the conversion, and it is the job of the plant to protect those involved.

By thoroughly planning the fuel conversion, plants can adequately protect the personnel, plant, and productivity.

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